Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama and the weight of expectations

An interesting take by a Brit living in America.

I understand and share in the excitement that Mr Obama has generated during the course of his campaign. He is an extraordinary politician: instantly likeable, a brilliant speaker, a genuine intellectual, a seeker of consensus, undogmatic, calm, pragmatic and open-minded, with unaffected empathy for the less fortunate. He is the very model of an appealing centre-left leader.

Because of these qualities, he would be a star in US politics if he were white - but he also happens to be black. It arouses accusations of "reverse racism" to point this out, but let us not be squeamish: the fact that he is black is another huge point in his favour.

He is an excellent politician: look at how far he has come since he made the speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004: the Presidency is now his. And his blackness is still preventing many people from appreciating his talents and promise.

Just this afternoon I heard a member of the Library staff express reservations of possible connections Obama might have with Louis Farrakhan, among other unknowns: this is not a dummy (though obviously also not a Mensa candidate, as it were).

I am struck by how fearful many Obama supporters are that latent racism will deny their man the prize. Nonetheless, one great barrier to the social and economic advance of black Americans is self-imposed. Few things are more debilitating than an excuse for failure. Urban black culture, which guides the ambitions of black youngsters, is astonishingly self-destructive. It goes beyond merely accepting failure and taking it for granted; it actually celebrates it.

I have some of that fear, too, though by today I am certain that Obama is winning. And I'm white.

Anything that attacks this mindset would be enormously to the advantage of black Americans and the country at large and, by sheer force of example, that is what Mr Obama's election would do. Wanda Sykes, the black comedienne, put it well when asked what difference a President Obama would make: "You can't keep blaming the man when you are the man."

Agreed: his election is going to be a huge benefit for the nation, Governor Palin and Joe the Plumber notwithstanding. And there are crazies on the far right that will be watching President Obama (has a nice ring to it, the phrase) for hints of his subordinated Marxism and Islamism.

The immediate challenge, of course, will be to manage the economic crisis. I trust the level-headed Mr Obama and his well-chosen technocrats to do a better job of this than the lately erratic and unpredictable John McCain. That same temperament also gives Mr Obama a big advantage in foreign policy. Healthcare reform ought to be among the highest priorities of the next president; Mr Obama's proposals are rightly more ambitious than his rival's and would do much more to widen coverage.

He will his hands full, that is for sure. The economy is in the tank, and recovery isn't close. But that will be a true test of his leadership.

And yet, as I say, I have reservations. If he wins, he will have to carry an insupportable burden of expectations and this is partly his own fault. Great presidents inspire but they also deliver. The plain fact is, Mr Obama cannot deliver what he has promised. The problems he will confront are too difficult.

But one thing he can do is bring hope, change the mentality that is Bush's: shoot first, ask no questions, and damn the opposition.

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